Remember when … 1986
Marlee Matlin not only made a successful jump from the stage production of “Children of a Lesser God” to the film adaptation, she won an Oscar for doing so in her first film role.
Making the achievement even more remarkable was that she beat out veterans Jane Fonda for “The Morning After”; Sissy Spacek, “Crimes of the Heart”; Kathleen Turner, “Peggy Sue Got Married”; and Sigourney Weaver, “Aliens.”
Spacek already had one Oscar and three nominations, while Fonda had two statuettes and four noms. Turner and Weaver scored their first noms after several years as popular actresses.

Four-time Oscar nominee Kate Winslet broke out in the spring with the first of two buzz roles in 2004 with “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a film she took on for its uniqueness. “I was just thrilled that there was something (director Michel Gondry) had seen in me in spite of the corsets that he thought was going to work for Clementine,” she says.

Winslet realized the best way to prepare as the impulsive character was to remain unprepared. “As frustrating as that became for production people, I loved it. I loved going to work and thinking, ‘What’s going to happen today?’ ” she says.

Summer saw early buzz for perfs from Uma Thurman in the second “Kill Bill,” and Bryce Dallas Howard’s role in “The Village” was one of the few things in the pic to draw unanimous praise. But the fall releases amped up the competition, though not from the usual sources such as Nicole Kidman in “Birth” and Julia Roberts in “Closer.” Zhang Ziyi of “House of Flying Daggers” and Audrey Tautou of “A Very Long Engagement” got a look from critics and awards. Julie Delpy earned effusive reviews for “Before Sunset,” but the film seemed unable to generate much awards momentum.

That two of the five noms went to roles few expected much from indicates how strong the perfs of Catalina Sandino Moreno in “Maria Full of Grace” and Imelda Staunton in “Vera Drake” really are.

Moreno, who worked on a flower plantation for two weeks and stayed with a local family in preparation for her role, says the experience on her first film was amazing. “I realized the work was pretty hard. They said that I could be a fly on the wall. But during the second week, I realized I needed to talk to these people and began to ask questions.”

Despite the intensity required by Imelda Staunton’s performance, the biggest role of her career, the actress went home cheerful every night thanks to the hard work of director Mike Leigh. “His way of working is you do it in your work, and you don’t take it home,” she says. “You walk away and I found that easy.”

Much less of a surprise was Annette Bening, who pulled from her stage experience for “Being Julia” to earn her third Oscar mention. “There’s lots of movie stuff from that period and photographs of movie stars and movie sets,” says Bening. “But this is a woman who’s not in that world. Her world takes a decidedly different context.”

The last one to throw her hat into the ring calendarwise, Hilary Swank delivers an intense performance in “Million Dollar Baby.” Swank, who won an Oscar five years ago for “Boys Don’t Cry,” seemed to have disappeared in the interim until “Baby” hit in December.

“I do realize that the great roles are few and far between, especially for women, and that has nothing to do with having an Academy Award,” she says. “As an actor you have to work — you can’t just wait for the most amazing things to come along.”

Oscar pedigree

Annette Bening received raves for “Being Julia,” but it’s a film that received no other nominations, which shows both how strong her performance was and that Oscar voters didn’t rate the rest of the film as highly. She has two previous nominations, and that track record could earn support from Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members.

Back with her fourth acting nom is Kate Winslet. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” topped many of the year’s top 10 lists, though it only earned two Oscar mentions, which might indicate that some in the Academy didn’t get the film’s twisty, dreamlike logic. Winslet does have the added advantage of a strong performance in “Finding Neverland.”

A courageous role won an Oscar for Hilary Swank with her first nom for “Boys Don’t Cry” and could do so again. Swank fills a difficult role with ease and grace, and the heartbreaking turn in the movie’s plot gives it dramatic chops that will be hard for Oscar voters to overlook.

This category has favored veterans and established actresses, so newcomer Catalina Sandino Moreno is a wild card in the mix. Her role as a drug courier in “Maria Full of Grace” and the film itself were well-received but have gotten little awards attention. The Academy likely will be content to let the nomination be recognition enough.

The case could have been the same for Imelda Staunton, another Oscar newcomer. But “Vera Drake,” having earned three noms and the admired Mike Leigh at the helm, could give her the additional credibility with the Acad to take home the trophy.